There are three things you need to know about Montanari’s Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table; first that this is an academic treatise, that it was translated from the original Italian by Beth Archer Brombert, and that it is a culinary history, rather than a cookbook. That being said, it’s a very interesting and thoughtful cultural history from an expert in the field who is perfectly willing to share his knowledge with the non-expert. Medieval Tastes is a slim book, whose illustrations are limited to woodcuts in the opening of each chapter, and whose endnotes, while sparse, are accurate and quote specific regarding sources, and whose bibliography is wide-ranging and rich in both recent and traditional sources. The author, Massimo Montanari, is a professor of Medieval history and the history of food at the Institute of Paleography and Medieval Studies, University of Bologna.
Medieval Tastes consists of eighteen chapters, each an overview to a basic topic, richly supported with citations for those who wish more. The chapters range from a survey of extant medieval cookbooks, and their differences from modern how to manuals, situated as they are between household manuals, recipe collections and medieval medical treatises on diet and digestion. Other chapters cover the preservation and nature of seasonal foods dependent on harvest, chapters on fish, meat, bread, condiments and wine, the differences between rich and poor tables, the monastic diet, and the issues of dining with a fork versus the hands. These are all topics grounded in the specific, in discussions of what actual people ate, set against the socio-cultural backdrop of an era that, technically, covers roughly a thousands years. Since extant sources are better for the thirteenth century through the early fifteenth, those are the eras generally covered, with occasional looks backward at Roman culinary practices.
It is dense with information without being overbearing or pedantic. The discussion of the socio-historical and cultural significance of food is grounded in the specifics, so that, for instance, the role of the humble onion is seen as a mark of both culture, and occasionally, of class, as are the differences in preparation of the same basic ingredients at the tables of the peasant, the merchant and the monk. Montanari refers to modern culinary practices and trends, showing how culinary history is sometimes on a continuum, and sometimes, not. This is a solid overview, with enough documentation to satisfy the academic (the bibliography and the index are thorough) without being boring or burdensome to the curious but not academic. I look forward to reading Massimo Montanari’s previous book, Food Is Culture (CUP 2006).
(Columbia University Press, 2015)